Despite what cartoons and comic books may have taught us, the inner side of a gun barrel is not, in fact, a smooth tube. Instead, contemporary firearms use rifled barrels to stabilize their projectiles by conserving angular momentum, increasing the accuracy of the weapon.
Now, rifling is a given on long and mid-sized firearms whose sole purpose is to be accurate and to deliver considerable firepower over significant distances. But – you might be thinking – are pistols rifled? They are, after all, a close-range personal defense weapon and, as such, a far cry from any kind of marksman functionality.
Right off the bat, we can tell you that, yes, pistols are rifled. In fact, just about every modern firearm comes with a rifled barrel, because not fitting it with one makes using it wildly impractical for accurate gunfire. Even in handguns, this is an important consideration.
However, there’s more to the matter than just that. This article is going to explain what’s up with pistol rifling, why it matters, and what a hypothetical smoothbore handgun might behave like at a firing range.
What Is The Purpose Of Rifling A Pistol?
Modern pistols are rifled for precisely the same reason as any other firearm: to maintain a reasonable level of accuracy at ranges beyond point-blank.
This is important not only for their usage in, say, hunting and target shooting, but also for security purposes and police work, just to mention a few examples. We’ll go into more detail on smoothbore barrels and the differences between the two systems, but the bottom line is simple: accuracy is key, and rifling helps a great deal.
After all, even though your 9mm handgun might not necessarily be designed to engage targets beyond 100 meters, you still want it to deliver rounds where you’re aiming. The last thing anyone needs is for stray bullets to be flying around. Rifling minimizes the odds of that happening.
More generally, rifling is basically the primary reason we have accurate firearms in the first place. Defined by a so-called ‘twist rate’, a barrel’s rifling dictates just how fast a cartridge spins before exiting it. In turn, this has a big effect on the projectile’s velocity and accuracy.
As the cartridge is expelled, it continues to twist, ensuring a far better long-range trajectory than a smoothbore, such as a musket, could ever have delivered.
A bullet that’s fired from a rifled barrel is also more resistant to atmospheric effects, which is a major consideration for military operations of all kinds. You don’t generally want strong winds to blow your bullets off-target, right?
Despite this, smoothbore weapons do still have a place on the market. Of course, we’re talking about shotguns, though they’re not particularly relevant for live combat situations or long-range engagements.
Is Every Modern Pistol Rifled?
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll come across a modern smoothbore pistol in the 21st century. In fact, if you’re situated in the US, it may be worth knowing that it is mandated by law that all pistol barrels have to be rifled to qualify as a pistol (or a revolver) in the first place.
Smoothbore “pistols”, then, are legally considered to be short-barreled shotguns instead. Far as accuracy goes, it’s not an entirely wrong assessment, either. Except for the fact that they’d be pretty bad shotguns if they were still to shoot regular pistol rounds.
Basically, a smoothbore handgun would fire a bullet without twisting it into an extremely fast spin. At best, that would make for an incredibly inaccurate firearm. At worst, though, let’s just say that the reliability of your firearm would suffer a fair bit.
The reason that ancient blunderbuss-type firearms worked somewhat well was that they didn’t shoot actual bullets, but perfectly round metal pellets instead, which ensured reasonable aerodynamic properties no matter how much they bounced around the barrel before leaving it.
Smoothbore Handguns: Are There Any Upsides?
So, with that in mind, are there even any upsides to creating a modern smoothbore handgun? Well, all things considered, not really. There’d be no point in using a smoothbore sidearm in any proper combat situation unless you’re absolutely forced to do so.
Interestingly, one highly specific example where a smoothbore barrel reigns supreme, aside from shotguns themselves, is with muzzle-loading firearms.
Namely, if you were to attempt to muzzle-load a rifled weapon, you’d soon discover that the process is much more difficult due to the barrel not being, for the lack of a better term, smooth.
Of course, it goes without saying that muzzle-loading firearms have been superseded in virtually every way by now. Short of wanting to use them at a firing range for curiosity’s sake, there’s no real reason to ever use such a weapon in this day and age.
Is there a pistol-sized shotgun available?
Well, believe it or not, there have been officially sanctioned and produced smoothbore sidearms that fired full-sized shotgun loads. If that sort of thing sounds impractical, you’re on the right track, because these “pistols” were absolutely massive. About as far from being a daily driver as possible, really.
As gun aficionados will know, we’re talking primarily about the ginormous Taurus Judge, chambered in .410. Note that this isn’t even remotely as kinetically powerful as the more commonly known 12 gauge. This five-round double-action hand cannon may have fired the smallest commercially available shot on the market, but it was still a sight to behold.
Smith & Wesson also produced a similar offering with their far less popular Governor. This pistol was about as chunky as the Judge, but it handled better, and was a more balanced handgun overall, even though the Taurus cannon ended up featured in many different video games and assorted media.
Even though these are still commercially available, it’s worth pointing out that practicality flies right out the window if you’re wielding such a weapon. You can say goodbye to the mere idea of a concealed carry, for one.
What Are The Different Types Of Pistol Rifling?
There are two main types of rifling when it comes to firearm technology. There’s the conventional design, where the inner side of the barrel is machined with twisting, spiral grooves that physically force the fired cartridge into a spin.
A serious contender and alternative to conventional rifling is polygonal rifling, which was originally pioneered for use in contemporary small arms by Heckler & Koch, Walther, and a number of other European manufacturers. Consider the legendary G3A3 as a prime example of polygonal rifling in practice.
Polygonal rifling replaces the sharp-edged grooves of a conventionally rifled barrel with a significantly less pronounced hexagonal or octagonal cross-section. Nowadays, Glock is one of the most popular mainstream sidearm manufacturers that make use of this technology.
Compared to traditional rifling techniques, polygonal rifling increases the thickness of the barrel, provides a better gas seal around the projectile, and greatly reduces bullet deformation and gunk buildup. Thus, you get all the performance of a rifled barrel with fewer downsides, mainly in regard to maintenance.
Do Bullets Inflict Damage To A Rifled Barrel?
As we said before, a rifled barrel damages the bullet as it is fired. In fact, if you ever watched one of the many different CSI shows on TV, this is how the investigators often located the perp: they match the grooves on the cartridge with the unique pattern on the rifled barrel of the weapon.
While the exact “fingerprint” of a pistol’s barrel rifling is a wholly different can of worms, the premise does explain the effect a barrel has on a bullet and, consequently, the effect that the bullet has on a barrel.
In other words, each bullet you fire from your pistol will add more gunk to the barrel and, if not properly maintained, may even eventually result in catastrophic failure.
To this end, you’re going to want to clean your pistol thoroughly and often. The softer the round, the more fouling will you be dealing with. To say nothing of the regular wear and tear on the weapon’s barrel. After all, every barrel can only fire off so many rounds, right?
We’ve gone on a few tangents with this article, but we think we’ve provided you with a clear and pointed overview of pistol rifling and its purpose, as well as with a few interesting threads to pull on if you’re in the mood to do more research.
Rifling is entirely ubiquitous in firearms manufacturing, and it’s hard to imagine a smoothbore weapon that’s not a shotgun becoming popular anytime soon.
Of course, we’re sure that we’ll get plenty more industry-defining arms production innovations in the future, but there’s no substituting rifling for common armaments.
Pistols, small or not, are a deadly weapon, and accuracy is of utmost importance for them. The only reason shotguns remain effective with smoothbore barrels is that they don’t fire a single round, but rather a whole bunch of them in a reasonably tight spread. You can’t really get that in a handgun-sized package without sacrificing virtually all the practicality of a sidearm, so we’ll be sticking with rifled barrels, as cool as the Taurus Judge might be.